What’s the use of use?

by Jakob Egholm Feldt

Portrait photo of Jakob Egholm Feldt

Jakob Egholm Feldt is professor of global history at Roskilde University. In his main research, he develops ideas about the connections between cultural and historical identities (such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and “theory” (economic, cultural, social). Parallel and sometimes converging with his main research, he has a lively interest in critical education and educational philosophy. He is particularly interested in the American pragmatist tradition and in critical theory (Frankfurt School), and he enjoys throwing himself into educational experiments.

Being useful is great. It is fundamentally satisfying. When students express that my teaching has been useful for them, I’m both grateful and happy. When my writing is useful for colleagues, when some organization ask for advice, or the media ask for a comment, I’m happy, although I may not always have time or energy to respond in kind. In this way, I’m predisposed to commit myself uncritically to the university of our time: whatever we as university people can do to help, solve problems, make up problems, invent things, evaluate, suggest, calculate or think this or that, I’m all in.

As it happens, I found the perfect university to be like this in. Roskilde University in Denmark whose slogan is: “The university in reality” (in Danish: “Universitetet i virkeligheden”). And we live in the perfect times for accentuating utility. The challenges heap up, problems abound, many of them critical. Aside from being depressed about climate change and mass extinction, I should be happy that we have said goodbye to the university-as-monastery, the ivory tower is down. The rest of the social world wants in. Companies want workforce, governments want growth, activists want change, everyone wants solutions, everyone wants education. The university is in high demand.        

Nevertheless, I’m increasingly uneasy about this surge of being useful and solving problems in the real world. My more monastically inclined friends say: we told you so, utility is a deadly attack on the university, utility is a gravitational force pulling us into the machine. All you Nietzscheans out there can say: you are a slave, wake up! And there is a point to these interventions, these reminders that the university in reality also brings reality in, in the end leaving us only with reality. Once, something mysterious was going on behind the walls, maybe even exciting cloak and dagger dramas of creation and wild imagination (think Umberto Eco), now clerks with daggers are threatening to zombify us while measuring the outcomes.

My ponderings are 100% un-original. Since the Enlightenment, philosophers have asked the same question: what’s the use of use? If the consequence of accepting that what we do needs “to contribute”, and that our work must have effects in “the real world” implicating that it must be possible to measure these effects, then what is not visible as effect or as contribution (to something else) will disappear. This is what hits the Humanities across the globe in these times radically challenging their existence, this is a crucial challenge for philosophies and theories of HE. Even Kant, when thinking about the progress of history, wrote that things that are not used will wither away and die. Utility is an omnivorous concept.   

Seen from the perspective of its outcomes, the accentuation of utility has led to quite dramatic changes. Universities across the world compete on lists about their impacts on various scales. If one list is impossible to join, alternative lists are made up to suit other kinds of interests. Progressive alternatives also rank themselves. Just think about how much utility means for student-centered education and learning, when the guiding maxim is the question of what good this or that practice do for student learning, how it makes learning better. The student is in this respect analogous to the image of society. Then we might as well ask what good all practices are for society.

For Hannah Arendt, who despised utilitarianism, the problem with utility refers to the problem about ends-and-means. Ends today are means tomorrow. She argued in The Human Condition that when we make utility the point, we get nothing: “utility established as meaning generates meaninglessness” (p. 154). Homo faber’s problem, she called it. When all meaning, worth, and value is of our own fabrication, everything stumbles into the downward spiral towards being useful for something else, endlessly. On Arendt’s account, utility stands in opposition to meaning. As a citizen of the modern university, I guess that I’m not alone in experiencing this opposition on a regular basis. Meaning to Arendt is about something else than utility. It is about which principles should guide or frame our daily hopes and troubles, about the right way to do things more than about the best way to do them.

There is a certain loftiness even arrogance about Arendt’s perspective, if we take it as a judgment on utility as a “low” way of thinking vis-à-vis principles as a “high” way of thinking. But in my reading, the main point is that if and when we make utility the principle, the ideal, then we dissolve the use of use because then “usefulness […] can no longer be conceived of as something needed to have something else” (154). So, when I confessed above that I have a tendency to enjoy being useful, the real question is if it really is for something else or if it is just a principle? What do I actually think about the end in view? Not seen from a window in the ivory tower but seen from the situation we find ourselves in.

Another more hopeful path into the problem of use is, as I see it, to start thinking differently about it before the principle of utility makes meaningful usefulness impossible. What if we instead of thinking about solving predefined problems, instead of promising effects, started thinking about use as something that happens while we do other things, to paraphrase the well-known proverb about life? We could think of our students as adventures, Life, happening and as co-people, not as outcomes of our designed processes? What if we instead of the calculator introduced the experiment, an adventurous what-if, where usefulness happens, strikes us, when we explore and inquire, driven by principles and practices which allow us to be useful. Many of these principles and practices are central dimensions, or ongoing inquiries, of the history of the university, considered as modes of transacting with the world, and they need to be revisited, reconstructed, reused. Or they might wither away and die.

Arendt, H. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018 [1958]

%d bloggers like this: